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Man sitting on a hospital bed, next to an ill family member.

Small, rural clinics struggle to meet the need for care during a meningitis epidemic. Photo: PATH/Monique Berlier.

Health centers are easily overwhelmed

As families struggle with the toll of meningitis, so do the region’s health workers and health facilities. In rural areas, small clinics are easily overwhelmed by the demand for services during an epidemic. The health centers are usually staffed by a nurse and no doctor. They have few beds, so patients and their families spread blankets under trees and wait for treatment. Staff make do with medicine cabinets that are often more empty than full, but always try to do the best they can to help their community.

Meningitis epidemics bring waves of people to vaccination posts to be vaccinated during mass campaigns organized by governments and the World Health Organization. Villagers line up early in the morning, waiting for the long-used polysaccharide vaccines. While these vaccines do provide short-term protection, they must be given quickly if they are to have an effect in stopping the epidemic. Yet delays in funding and distribution of the polysaccharide vaccine often mean the vaccine doesn’t reach communities until after the epidemic has passed. These reactive vaccinations, delivered for more than 20 years, have not been able to control epidemics.

Nurse speaking to a crowd of people.

Dedicated health workers work long days to bring meningitis vaccine to their communities. Read their story. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, in the heart of the meningitis belt, epidemics can strike any time during the dry season from December to June. They tend to peak in April, the hottest month of the year. Governments divert their funding for other essential services, such as routine vaccinations and social and economic programs, to respond to the epidemics, leaving vulnerable populations even further at risk. In Burkina Faso alone, fighting an epidemic takes 5 percent of the government’s total annual health expenditure.

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